Methodologies



The Methodology is one of the most important and neglected sections in engineering writing. In some documents, such as an undergraduate lab report, the methodology section can be as short as a one-sentence reference to relevant section of the lab manual. But in more advanced labs, the methodology can be a very significant part of the report. In fact, the methodology is often the product of engineering related research: researchers are often looking for appropriate ways of testing or evaluating products, forces, etc., or new methods for accomplishing a required task. In a proposal, the methodology can even be the most important part of the document – the proposal argues that its method for achieving a certain task is the best.

The methodology section of report should accomplish two tasks:

  1. Should allow readers to, if necessary, reproduce your experiment, design, or method for achieving a task
  2. Should help readers to anticipate your results

Writing a methodology that does both requires attention to detail and precision. In the following example from a lab report, key elements of the method are missing:

We poured out some distilled water into the container. We then added some of mixture A. We shook the mixture and observed what happened, taking some measurements.

This statement of method is missing some essential elements:

  • How much distilled water did you pour?
  • How much of the mixture did you add?
  • How did you shake it (length, technique)?
  • What did you observe, measure?

It is also missing some key details that may or may not be relevant to the experiment:

  • What was the container made of?
  • How big was it?
  • Did you let it settle?

The composition of the container ma be significant because the mixture may react with certain materials; its size is significant, because it may tell us how accurate your measurements were (for example, measuring 5ml in a 1000 ml container would probably result in less accurate measurements than measuring 5ml in a 100ml container). Whether or not the mixture was allowed to settle, and how much time was required, may also determine the results of the reaction.

In revising this statement of method, we want to ensure that we include all of these details to help the reader reproduce the experiment and to anticipate a set of results:

We poured 250ml of distilled water into the 1000ml glass beaker. We then added 50mg of Mixture A. We shook the mixture by gently twirling the beaker around for two minutes. We observed and recorded the changes in mixture color and transparency during our mixing process. Immediately after stopping the mixing process, we recorded the color, translucency, and temperature of the new solution; we repeated these measurements after letting the solution settle for five minutes.

After reading this method, readers should already have expectations for the results: specifically, readers should see three key readings, color, transparency, and temperature taken at three different times, during, immediately after shaking, and after settling (but no temp reading for during stage).

Passive versus Active Voice: The methods section of your report should not be written in an imperative mode – that is, you are not giving people instructions or commands, but describing what was done. But the choice between active and passive voice in your methods is a contentious one. Some readers will prefer the active voice, while others prefer the passive. Both are acceptable; deciding on what voice to use will require some audience analysis (i.e. ask your professor or supervisor). The above passage can easily and unobtrusively be converted to passive:

250ml of distilled water was poured into a 1000ml glass beaker. 50mg of Mixture A was then added to the water. The mixture was gently shaken for two minutes. Changes in mixture color and transparency during our mixing process were observed and recorded. The color, translucency, and temperature of the new solution were recorded immediately after shaking, and after five minutes of settling.

Writing Methods for Other Types of Reports: The above example was taken from a student lab report: you should apply the same attention to detail in writing methods sections for proposals and other types of reports.

The key difference between the methodology in lab report and other types of reports is that in the lab report, the method is often given in the procedure from the manual. In research reports and proposals, the method is something you devise on your own. This adds two tasks to writing the methods: organization and justification.

1. Organization: Organization of the methodology section seems simple enough: the most obvious structure is chronological. However, while organization by chronology is usually the dominant mode of organization, you may not want to describe everything in the order that you did them. For example, you might start a different stage of the methods while waiting for the previous one to finish. Trying to adhere to a strict chronological mode of organization here would not be a good idea. Organizing a methodology section well involves:

Dividing and subdividing the steps into the appropriate key stages/sub-stages
Choosing headings / key words that reflect the nature of the stages (i.e. Sample Preparation)
Providing an overview of the entire methodology at the beginning of the section

2. Justification: If your method is of your own making, you may also need to justify your choices. Explain clearly why you chose the method that you did – for accuracy, simplicity, etc. – and also identify the implications of using your methods. For example, there may be some limitations that you were forced to accept because of time, cost, or other constraints. Identify these, state why they are acceptable or necessary, and explain the effect they may have on your results (take these into account in your Discussion as well).